The MeNZB vaccine redux
The vaccine trial was not a glowing success. As reported in the Lancet in 1991, the vaccine did not provide a high enough degree of effectiveness (57%) and it was never licensed for use in mass vaccination in Norway, where the epidemic had in any case started to subside. In addition, there were scientific and ethical questions raised throughout the trial. The vaccine had a relatively high number of side effects, and it was unclear to some that the risks of these side-effects had been properly communicated to the parents of the children. Compensation was offered to some of the children seriously injured in the study.
This is where the New Zealand part of the story comes in. A few years ago, the World Health Organization requested that a vaccine similar to the Norwegian one be exported to New Zealand, which was suffering its own meningococcus b epidemic. Using the same technology and the same methodology from 1980s, researchers from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health tailored a new vaccine for New Zealand. The multinational pharmaceutical company Chiron was awarded rights to mass produce the vaccine. Part of the controversy is that what is now called the MeNZB vaccine was never subjected to a Phase III trial. According to critics, this means that a vaccine whose safety and efficacy has not been sufficiently proven is being used on hundreds of thousands of New Zealand children. According to defenders, the safety and efficacy had been well-enough proven without the need for Phase III trials, and doing so would have been unethical itself in the face of a public health emergency.
A new Norwegian documentary entitled The Vaccine Experiment -- In the Service of the Good that aired recently on New Zealand television draws doubt on the science and ethics of the Norwegian trial, and by extension, the use of the vaccine in New Zealand. The New Zealand Ministry of Health has responded vigorously, labelling participants in the documentary 'anti-immunization zealots' and issuing a press release in unyielding defence of their vaccination program. One of the alleged zealots (Professor Jan Helge Solbakk) has recently been named head of bioethics at UNESCO.